The ‘Mumsnet election’ doesn’t get my vote

Britain’s political leaders are fawning over professional, campaigning mums, but they still look down their noses at ordinary parents.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

As a mother of young children, I suppose I should feel vaguely excited – if not absurdly flattered – by the looming ‘Mumsnet election’. But the thought of it does as much for me as changing a sloppy, honking nappy.

The General Election has gained this moniker not because it is actually taking place on social networking sites (though it would come as little surprise if it did), but because both the main contenders have young families (David Cameron’s expanding by the day); because both the main parties are obsessed with family policy; because women of a certain age have been targeted as important voters; and because the prime minister, Gordon Brown, has fallen quite soppily in love with the website Mumsnet, describing it as ‘one of the great British institutions’ that is ‘changing the way Britain lives’, and standing at the forefront of a ‘social revolution’.

Given all this, you might think that parents might welcome the chance to be centre stage, and to Have Our Say about the Things That Matter To Us. Given that we spend much of our lives feeling benighted, ignored, and blamed for all the problems of the world – which apparently derive directly from the way that we bring up our children – the opportunity to have an open, political debate about the role of family policy and the pressures facing modern family life would indeed be very welcome. But this ‘Mumsnet election’ speaks to the anti-political character of policymakers’ obsession with the family, and liberating families from some of the pressures of modern parenting culture is not an item on anybody’s agenda.

In an insightful column, Times columnist Libby Purves has criticised the very idea that politicians should be fighting over the mummy vote. Having a young family, she argues, doesn’t make you a better person than anyone else. To the extent that it makes you seem more engaged in social and political life, this is down to what she describes as ‘transferred selfishness’ – the fact that you would do anything for your kids, and therefore fight harder for resources than you might for yourself. Because you’re doing it for the sake of the children, this self-interest takes on the veneer of altruism – as Zoe Williams pointed out in her contribution to Standing Up To Supernanny, the idea that ‘I want the best for my child’ seems kind of saintly and uncontroversial, even though it is really only a way of saying ‘I want the best for myself’.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting the best for your child – or, indeed, for yourself. Historically, this is what has driven society forwards and given politics its vibrancy. But in today’s politically barren culture, the ‘best for my child’ aspiration does not generally lead to a generational optimism, a desire to create the Good Society now and in the future. It tends to take the form of a narrow-minded, tunnel-visioned aggression, as parents fight over getting a place in the good school, a place for their child on the football team, or additional educational resources.

On a personal level, it is understandable that parents find themselves having to play this game. To us, our own children are more special than anybody else’s, and you can’t just sit back and watch in this puppy-eat-puppy world. At the level of a quasi-political sentiment, though, parents fighting against non-parents, and indeed other parents, for limited resources is a pretty scary phenomenon, which exacerbates divisiveness and special pleading. To run society, to create policy, one needs to be able to think more broadly than about what might be immediately good for one’s own family and personal life. The notion of a ‘Mumsnet election’ challenges even this idea of thinking broadly, and engaging in genuine politics.

Gordon Brown hails Mumsnet as creating a ‘social revolution’ presumably because he sees the website as a forum in which people engage with each other around issues that affect their lives. But chatting about products, confessing to dodgy discipline habits, and swapping opinions about the issues of the day, from the perspective of a mother sitting in front of her computer who has come to the website because she has kids, does not provide a means to take parents out of their immediate, everyday concerns. It gives them a space to hang out with each other (a good thing), and elevates these immediate, everyday concerns to the status of political debate (a very bad thing).

I should stress – as a hardened non-Mumsnetter – that the reason for the elevation of the petty and the personal is not the fault of social networking sites. It is the result of the degradation of politics. Politicians’ obsessive focus on parenting, and the manic writing of policy documents designed to engage with the modern family, has not arisen because today’s parents really want and need a daily official update on how to bring up their kids. It is more about an attempt to find a role for policy when large-scale social solutions seem no longer convincing, and attempting to engage with a public that seems increasingly distant and disengaged.

Parents, because they care about their kids, and because they interact daily with public services, have come to be seen as an important focus for political connection. But the form of this connection is self-consciously not political, in terms of a debate about social problems and broad policy objectives. Rather, it increasingly attempts to connect with parents at a pre-political level: to do with direct concerns about their own children’s health or educational attainment, to do with fears about the harms that might befall their children from other people, and keying into parents’ feelings of inadequacy about how they are raising their kids. These are the kind of discussions that have made Mumsnet famous, and they are exactly the kind of discussions that politicians and policymakers want to be having with parents during the forthcoming Mumsnet election.

The trouble is that for politicians, attempting to engage with parents in the way of a therapist, or commercial service provider, or even online ‘friend’, will not revitalise politics – and even as a short-term measure, it will not provide the popularity boost that they seek. Politicians can try to relate to people as individuals, but they cannot satisfy individual desires.

This point was starkly made by Times journalist Rachel Sylvester, complaining about the way that funding has been slashed for the local Sure Start project that her children attend because the uptake of the scheme is seen to be ‘too middle-class’. Current family and education policy is built around the ‘active consumer’ as the ideal kind of parent – one who will engage with services, make a heavy emotional investment and time commitment in his or her child’s education, and so on. But inciting parents to demand more and more for their own family leads to disenchantment, then resentment, when these demands cannot be met by limited public resources.

For parents, the prospect of putting mums and dads even more at the centre of political debate is frankly grim. While we might be flattered that politicians want to talk to us, the past decade or so indicates that our opinions tend to be solicited primarily to find more effective ways of telling us what to do. The more the importance of parents and ‘parenting’ is talked up, the greater the justification is seen to be for policy that highlights our alleged deficiencies in how we love and relate to our children. If it’s a political debate you want, the ‘Mumsnet election’ is not going to deliver.

Jennie Bristow edits the website Parents With Attitude. She is author of Standing Up To Supernanny, and co-author of Licensed to Hug. (Buy these books from Amazon (UK) here and here.) Email Jennie {encode=”mailto:jennie@bristow.com” title=”here”}.

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